To Sell or To Be Sold – Is That Really the Question?

An Elementary Teacher’s Concerns About School to Work

By Bob Peterson

Young children at work counting play money.

Reading Milwaukee’s newspaper doesn’t usually jar me awake, but it did one morning a few days before school started. It wasn’t a sensational headline that replaced my caffeine fix. It was the stark contrast between the lead story and what I had heard the day before at a school to work event.

At the event, a number of teachers had enthusiastically praised the role bankers were playing in their elementary schools as part of school to work. In one school, for instance, a bank came in, set up an actual branch, and had children open accounts, using money from sales of crafts “manufactured “in their classrooms. In another school, bankers spent an hour and a half each week with fifth graders, teaching about resum_s and job interviews, and an equal amount of time with sixth graders, teaching different aspects of banking, such as home mortgages.

Such descriptions were still on my mind the next morning when I unrolled my newspaper and saw the front-page headline: “Minorities lag in suburban mortgages.” The article detailed a report by a local sociology professor blaming the huge gap between white and minority mortgages on “discriminatory practices” in the housing industry, of which lending institutions such as banks are a major player. The report documented that the number of suburban home-purchase mortgage loans to Blacks increased from 48 in 1990 to only 110 in 1994, compared to comparable figures of 8,578 to 12,567 for whites. At such rates, it would take 141 years for Blacks’ share of suburban home mortgage loans to equal their share of households in the metropolitan area, according to the study.

While some of the black/white gap is due to lower economic status among Blacks, such factors “pale when compared to discriminatory practices,” according to Greg Squires, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee sociology professor who wrote the report.

Discrimination in lending rates is nothing new in Milwaukee. A 1992 U.S. Census Bureau report found that the Milwaukee area is the country’s most residentially segregated for Blacks, and the term “hyper-segregated” is often applied to the city’s housing patterns. Last March, a report by Milwaukee’s city comptroller found that Milwaukee has the highest disparity between white and minority loan-rejection rates of any of the country’s 50 largest cities.

As I read the article, I wondered if schools working with banks were also showing this less-than-favorable reality. Are our students also learning that many financial institutions discriminate in their lending? Or that banks have been a part of “red-lining” practices that have contributed to Milwaukee’s hyper-segregation? And that the families of Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) students, 75% of whom are minorities, suffer disproportionately from such discrimination?

Across the World

As I continued reading the newspaper, I stumbled upon another reference to banks, this time in an article about riots in Jordan over the doubling of bread prices. Some 40 people were injured in the protests, the worst in Jordan since 1989, and banks and government buildings were set on fire. Bread is a staple of the Jordanian diet, and protests erupted when bread prices doubled and prices of more than 20 other food staples increased as part of an economic plan supervised by the International Monetary Fund. The IMF and the World Bank, U.S.-dominated financial institutions, have increasingly intervened in Third World economies and “redirected” policies to bring them in line with market-oriented practices despite often severe social repercussions in countries such as Jordan, where the annual per capita income is only $1,100 and where the government had helped subsidize the price of food staples. Again, I wondered if children in school to work programs are given a glimpse of the controversial role of banks internationally, particularly in Third World countries.

Before I go any further, let me underscore that I think children should learn about banks and financial institutions. Furthermore, there are important skills that students can learn by running a bank or store including computational, social, and problem-solving skills. By and large, I support the goals of the Milwaukee school to work initiative, despite questions about its implementation. Establishing deeper connections between schools and our community, including our business community, is essential.

What worries me is the trend I see in elementary schools toward an uncritical, one-sided approach to teaching about influential institutions such as banks. Does entering a partnership mean we must blind ourselves to the often contradictory, sometimes harmful role that powerful institutions play? Are we teaching children about the world or about the world according to business? If students are taught only the benevolent aspects of banking, they might think that financial institutions have no connection with discrimination, impoverishment, or outright fraud (remember the S & L scandal, which cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars?).

As part of school to work, students should be encouraged to step back and look at the totality of how businesses function and to examine their policies good and bad not only in terms of making money, but in terms of their workers, consumers, the community, and the environment.

What’s Going On?

My concern about how banking is one-sidedly portrayed to many MPS students is tied to a larger anxiety about the direction of school to work nationally.

In some districts, school to work has limited, business-driven goals that emphasize preparing kids for jobs. One would not expect such programs to be concerned with developing critical thinking skills among their students. But Milwaukee has gained a national reputation for its attempts to move beyond a narrow school to work agenda and to use the initiative to revamp school curricula, particularly in those high school classes where students were forced to study material that had little connection to the real world and that, by most accounts, was incredibly boring.

I appreciate Milwaukee’s concern with connecting school to work to life. This concern is reflected not only in the name of the MPS initiative “School to Work: Learning for Life” but in what has been adopted as the initiative’s central goal: “All students learn high level thinking skills by solving real world problems.” Due to this approach, the prestigious California firm SRI International said in a 1995 report on the MPS school to work program that it has a “strong academic footing not usually associated with the popular conception of school to work programs across the nation.”

Unfortunately, that is what is most disconcerting. Within MPS elementary schools, there appears to be a trend toward schools adopting a narrow, non-academic, “let’s mimic business” perspective. If this is happening in Milwaukee, then what is happening in districts that do not even profess to couple school to work with high academic standards and critical thinking?

Even in a district such as Milwaukee, despite the rhetoric of the official pamphlets and the topics of many school to work workshops, a “buy and sell” business mentality seems to be increasingly dominating educators’ and students’ thinking, a phenomenon I call the “commodification of education.”

Other Reforms Distorted

Narrow approaches to school to work even distort school reform efforts that should be in the forefront of progressive change. One example is the new MPS performance assessments. (Milwaukee is the largest school district in the country that has mandated new types of performance assessments, whereby students actually do an experiment, make a presentation, or write an essay and are judged on what they can do. Such performances have the potential dual benefits of being a more accurate judge of what kids have actually learned, and of encouraging teachers to adopt more activity-based teaching styles.)

For example, in the oral communications assessment at the 5th, 8th and 10th grade levels, the prompt to be used this fall is for students to conduct a video-taped job interview selling themselves to a prospective employer. I have no problem with students learning job interview etiquette sometime during their school careers. But it strikes me as excessive, to put it mildly, to put a job interview as the central focus in three different grade levels for such a broad skill as oral communications. While MPS officials have promised that other prompts for the oral communications assessment will be developed in the second semester, the fact that this was the first, and only one for the fall, shows how easy it is to fall into a narrow interpretation of school to work.

Similarly, the elementary art performance assessment this fall reflects the trend toward a narrow, get-a-job mentality. The assessment tells children they are applying for a job at an advertising agency and that they need to develop a logo and a television commercial for “Zing,” a healthy and chewy snack bar. (At least they did not come out and say “candy bar.”)

A cynic might argue that kids are learning what is most important in our society: the ability to either sell themselves (oral communication assessment) or sell things (arts assessment). But I question whether it is appropriate for MPS to reinforce the already sad state where the average child views an estimated 50,000 television commercials a year. Some educators also have raised concerns that the elementary art assessment favors those kids who watch more TV. Furthermore, I fear the assessment will encourage an uncritical view toward advertising to say nothing of the problems with reducing art merely to advertising.

I believe that in this media-centric world, “media literacy” is a key component to what SRI International called a “strong academic footing.” But instead of making advertisements, might it not be better to have students critiquing advertisements? Other teachers I know have suggested that positive social values would be better promoted if we ask 4th or 5th graders to create advertisements about their favorite book, or make public service announcements on ways to help protect the environment or improve the neighborhood, or make a piece of artwork depicting problems with stereotypes in popular media and children’s books.

Market Ideology

Across education, market ideology is increasingly being promoted, whether in experiments with for-profit public schools, calls for increased competition between schools, or the increasing use of business products as part of the curriculum. My fear is that unless school to work consciously tries to separate itself from the increasing emphasis on market ideology and values, the reform will only reinforce our society’s emphasis on money as the supreme determinant of what is valuable.

At a school to work session this August, for instance, I saw the harmful effects when marketplace ideology is allowed to unduly influence what is and is not good curriculum.

At the session, I was with 25 elementary teachers who were discussing “integrated learning” and “project based learning. “(Integrated learning, often identified by MPS officials as a key characteristic of school to work, is teaching two or more subject areas together, showing how the disciplines are interconnected and allowing teachers to make the subjects more meaningful to their students’ lives. Both in MPS and around the country, “integrated learning” is not necessarily connected to school to work, and some teachers adopted this practice long before school to work became popular.)

At the workshop on “integrated learning,” five of the six teachers who talked most extensively explained how key components of their school to work effort involved students running school stores, students making things to sell at the stores, school markets, or students “earning” money or its school equivalent, by doing jobs such as kindergarten helper and lunchroom cleaner.

What was revealing was not so much the narrow perspectives on school to work that came up in the examples of “integrated learning.”What astounded me was the atmosphere created, in which subsequent ideas seemed to be judged on the basis of whether students were entering the marketplace and learning to make money.

One teacher from a school that is just starting school to work explained how last year their students had been involved in volunteer activities in the community, such as helping at nursing homes. At the end of her statement, she basically apologized that their school had not “paid” their kids for this work. “We did it just because it is a good thing to do,” she said. She then added that perhaps this year her school would figure out how to “pay” the kids.

The same attitude came from another teacher when she described an art project that their school had made and then donated to a local non-profit organization. “The kids did real nice art work, but they didn’t sell it,” she said almost apologetically.

The not-so-hidden message here seems to be that human behavior is valuable only to the extent it makes money. Such a perspective makes it seem as if the “real world” is limited to the world of business, thus narrowing kids’ sense of what life is, or at least ought to be, about. The other hidden message is that motivation for learning and community service is best accomplished by extrinsic rewards such as money, rather than by the intrinsic value of enjoying what one does or knowing that it is worthwhile.

I hasten to add that I use a variety of external rewards to help motivate behavior in my classroom. But I have found in my 16 years of teaching that to the degree I rely on external rewards, they often have short-term gains and tend to corrupt the worthwhileness of the project. The students learn to focus on the award, not the learning activity or the project. To institutionalize such practices on a schoolwide level and label them the core of school to work is a troubling trend.

Some of my colleagues, no doubt, will argue that I need to get off my idealistic high-horse and recognize that money makes the world go round, whether we like it or not, and kids had better get used to that. I disagree. Contrary to the endless commercial messages we receive, much of human behavior is motivated by other than material rewards and many people even make a living acting on the irnon-acquisitive motivations. Motives of love, friendship, solidarity, compassion, religion, and respect for the earth still carry considerable weight.

It is beyond the scope of this article to develop an alternative school to work curriculum. But at the least, educators need to start asking more questions. As we help students look at the changing nature of work in the 21st century, we need to do more than help students learn new technological and business skills. Kids need a critical sense of what they might expect from the jobs that will consume huge portions of their adult lives. They need to probe some of the messy issues of work in modern America, both policy issues and broader questions of how work is organized and for whose benefit and whether it should be organized differently.

Kids need to explore issues such as occupational health concerns, growing wage disparities between workers and management, the lack of health care and benefits in so many jobs, the trend toward part-time and temporary jobs, the devaluation of physical labor, discrimination on the basis of race and gender, and how workplace organization contrasts to the American political value of democracy. Students also need to explore the implications of the globalized economy: what does it mean when unionized jobs in the U.S. are exported to third world countries that condone child labor? They need to understand what it is about the structure of work in our society that forces too many workers into alienated, boring jobs.

We teachers should be proud when we motivate students to learn and to do projects for reasons other than extrinsic rewards. Similarly, we should help students see that the value of “real life” jobs can be judged by factors other than money values such as creativity, intellectual challenge, positive social relations at the workplace, and useful social purposes.

We should refuse to accept a certain policy or perspective just because “that is the way it is in the real world.” One could make similar arguments about problems of discrimination, racism, sexism, and pollution. Yet most educators agree that we should not try to reproduce those values or practices in our schools. Why should we so uncritically and wholeheartedly adopt the values of the marketplace in our schools? Shouldn’t we try to ensure that school to work is, in word and in practice, centered on school to life?

Bob Peterson ( is a 5th grade teacher at La Escuela Fratney and a Rethinking Schools editor.